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The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

future in reverse

Foresight is not about making predictions. Rather, it's a tool for identifying dynamics of change, in part by exploring the implications of those changes. This is a point I've made often enough that even I'm sick of it -- but it remains an idea that not enough people understand. It's next to useless to say "X will happen;" it's much more valuable to say "here's why X could happen."

One of the trickier aspects of this formulation of foresight is the need to keep an eye on how the dynamics of change themselves are evolving. It's easy to get locked into a particular idiom of futurism, calling upon standard examples and well-known drivers as we work through what a turbulent decade or three might hold. It's comforting to be able to go back to the old standbys, confident that the audience can sing along.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the role technological change plays in futurism. The big picture visions of what the next 20-50 years could hold in terms of technologies haven't changed considerably since the beginning of the century, and (for the most part) since the early 1990s. Moreover, what we've seen in terms of real-world, actual technological change has been largely evolutionary, not revolutionary. Or, more to the point, the revolutions that have occurred have not been in the world of technologies.

Here's what I mean: if you were to grab a future-oriented text from the early part of the last decade, you'd find discussions of technological concepts that radical futurists and "hard science" science fiction writers were seeing as being on the horizon, developments like:

  • Molecular nanotechnology
  • Artificial intelligence and robots galore
  • 3D printers
  • Augmented reality
  • Ultra-high speed mobile networks
  • Synthetic biology
  • Life extension
  • Space colonies

    I could go on, but you get the picture. All of those technologies appeared in the "hard science" science fiction game series Transhuman Space, which I worked on in 2001 to 2003. Most could easily be found in various "what the future will look like" articles and books from the late 1990s.

    Since then, some of those concepts have turned into reality, while others remain on the horizon. But pin down a futurist today and ask what technologies they expect to see over the next few decades, and you'll get a remarkably similar list -- often an identical one. As a telling example, the list above could serve as a rough guide to the current curriculum of the Singularity University, minus the investment advice.

    There hasn't been a ground-breaking new vision of technological futures in at least 10 years, probably closer to 15; nearly all of the technological scenarios talked about at present derive in an incremental, evolutionary way from the scenarios of more than a decade ago. The closest thing to an emerging paradigm of technological futures concerns the role of sensors and mobile cameras in terms of privacy, surveillance, and power. It's still fairly evolutionary (again, I could cite examples from Transhuman Space), but more importantly, it's much more about the social uses of technologies than about the technologies themselves.

    For me, that's an interesting signal. In many ways, we can argue that the major drivers of The Future, over the past decade and very likely to continue for some time, are primarily socio-cultural. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons futurists often are uncomfortable with this line of foresight thinking, and most do it rather poorly. But while those of us in the futures world have been talking about nanotechnology, fast mobile networks, bioengineering and such over the past decade, very few of us even came close to imagining back in the late 1990s/early 2000s that by the early 2010s we'd see:

  • The effective collapse of American hegemony.
  • The inability/unwillingness of world leaders to respond to global warming.
  • The death spiral of the European Union.
  • Accelerating economic inequality.
  • Major changes to global demographics, especially population forecasts.
  • The unregulated expansion of financial instruments based on little more than betting on other financial instruments.
  • That the Koreas would remain divided.
  • That there hasn't been a major biological, radiological, or nuclear terror event.
  • The speed of urbanization, especially in the developing world.
  • The Arab Spring, Occupy, Tea Party, and similar bottom-up political movements.

    And on and on. If futurists have become almost too good at technological foresight, we remain woefully primitive in our abilities to examine and forecast changes to cultural, political, and social dynamics.

    Why is this? There isn't a single cause.

    Some of it comes from a long-standing habit in the world of futurism to focus on technologies. Tech is easy to describe, generally follows widely-understood physical laws, offers a bit of spectacle (people don't ask about "jet packs" because they think they're a practical transit option!), and -- most importantly -- is a subject about which businesses are willing to pay for insights. Most foresight work is done as a commercial function, even if done by non-profit organizations. Futurists have to pay the rent and buy groceries like everyone else. If technology forecasts are what the clients want to buy, technology forecasts will be what the foresight consultants are going to sell.

    Another big reason is that, simply put, cultural/political/social futures are messy, extremely unpredictable, and partisan in ways that make both practitioners and clients extremely vulnerable to accusations of bias. We're far more likely to make someone angry or unhappy talking about changing political dynamics or cultural norms than we are talking about new mobile phone technologies; we're far more likely to be influenced by our own political or cultural beliefs than by our preferences for operating systems. One standard motto for foresight workers (I believe IFTF's Bob Johansen first said this, but I could be wrong) is that we should have "strong opinions, weakly held" -- that is, we should not be locked into unchanging perspectives on the future. Again, this is relatively easy to abide by when it comes to technological paradigms, and much harder when it comes to issues around human rights, economic justice, and environmental risks.

    Lastly, there's a strong argument to be made that futurism as practiced (both the the West and, from what I've seen, in Asia) has a strong connection to the topics of interest to politically-dominant males. It would be too easy to caricature this as "boys with toys," but we have to recognize that much of mainstream futures work over the past fifty years (certainly since Herman Kahn's "thinking the unthinkable") has focused on tools of expressing power, and has been performed by men. This is changing; the Institute for the Future employs more women than men, for example. In many respects, futurism in the early 21st century seems very similar to historiography in the post-WW2 era: still dominated by traditional stories of power, but slowly beginning to realize that there's more to the world.

    Howard Zinn was a highly controversial historian, but even those who hate his work can admit that he popularized a perspective on history that simply hadn't received much attention beforehand. History can be about more than what Great Leaders did and said, which Great Wars were fought, and how Great Events Turned the Tide of History; history can be about how regular people lived, slowly-changing shifts in belief, and the complicated aftermath of the Great Moments. Similarly, futurism can be -- needs to be -- about more than transformative, transcendental technologies.

    There's no doubt that social futurism is significantly more difficult than techno futurism. Without a clear model for socio-cultural change, and absent the appearance of a Hari Seldon complete with almost infallible mathematics of social behavior*, we have to go by experience, gut instinct, and the intentional misapplication of training in History, Anthropology, Sociology. But that doesn't mean that good social futurism is impossible; it just means we have to be careful, conscious of the pitfalls, and transparent about our own biases.

    Easier said than done, of course.

    * Void in the case of the Mule.

  • Comments

    Very similar in many ways to a comment I made earlier today. While there definitely is a large, bearded elephant with the face of Karl Marx in the room, we also need to look at what energy economists are saying about the limits of our current development, how our society makes decisions (especially around work and what "good work" is, but generally, as well), and the flaws in enlightenment thinking that have led us to this point.

    Doing this honestly and making a living at the same time is not an easy task. Good luck.

    I disagree with the conclusions. For a deeper understanding of the future I pay attention to the projects the military govcorp complex would prefer to conceal. There's an excellent example of this with Bill Woods recent Project Camelot whistle blowing. It's next level forecasting.

    Yep. You and I are, as usual, on the same page here.

    I wrote an article about a year ago with a very similar perspective: "Are we in the future yet?"

    That was an awesome Foundation reference

    I agree totally with your observation here. Most of the scenarios I have seen revolve around technology and the occasional policy position (e.g., will we tax carbon or not?). More interesting to me are scenarios that oppose possible dominant beliefs (e.g. we do/don't believe government is the problem; or we do/don't believe technology will solve everything). I find these help me perceive more and differently now than traditional scenarios (and particularly the technology ones). Also, I think too many people neglect a systems view when thinking about new technology that will enter into an existing system. In my world, for example, many assume that if you put in a fancy new thermostat, space-conditioning related energy savings will automatically emerge. Of course, if the occupant has no practice of interacting with his or her thermostat, savings are unlikely and random. And if powerful beliefs underlie the current system, I think it is even harder for technology to have the expected effect. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

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